POW, Survivor, One of the Greatest Generation… as told by JM Taylor, 96 year old lifelong resident of Grand Junction, TN.
On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and our other Pacific Military Bases, nearly everyone in the United States wanted to ‘do’ something. We, as a country, were pulled into a war that would account for many lives lost, but also something that made us all pull together, as a country, and it produced our ‘greatest generation’. When JM Taylor begged his parents to let him join the Aviation Cadets, they said ‘No’. A few months later, he was notified that he would be drafted on his birthday, and his parents relented, allowing him to enlist in the Army Air Force. Taylor shipped out for Pre-Flight training in Montgomery, Alabama, Primary training in Ocala, Florida and was graduated from Spence Field, Moultrie Georgia, on December 5, 1943. He started combat with P-40s, but then got to fly P-51s, the hope of nearly all of the fighter pilots in WWII. “Everybody wanted to be a fighter pilot and fly the P-51, they were the best fighter planes that we had!”
Taylor went into the famed Flying Tigers after the Air Force reorganized it. The Flying Tigers, or what became the Fourteenth Air Force, were stationed in China, and JM was in the ‘Flying Tiger Sharks’ of the 23rd Fighter Group. His squadron’s first Commander (Shark One) was the famed ‘Tex’ Hill. ‘Tex’ had been a squadron leader of the original AVG (American Volunteer Group) who had been in place and dubbed the Flying Tigers by the Chinese who said they ‘never give up’. The name stuck, and even when the regular Air Force came in and reorganized the pilots who were in place with the AVG, they earned the name again, and again. It is still in use today by the ‘descendants’, the 74th, 75th, and 76th fighter squadrons.
“On November 11, 1944, I was strafing Japanese held Hengyang airfield, which used to be a USAAF base. My P-51B was hit by ground fire in the coolant system and my engine quit on a 50-foot low pass at gun emplacements. Over the middle of the field, three more explosive shells hit right outside my windshield. My engine quit, I was dead in the air. I was able to twist and turn, get to 1200 ft. and glide away from the field, maybe a mile, and bail out at around 300 ft. My chute drifted over that Mustang (P-51B) like a shroud. I threw my chute and all of my escape equipment into the fire and turned around to run. I ran right into a squad of angry Jap soldiers.”
Taylor told us, years melting away as he told his story, “We lost four planes, one pilot died, two walked back, and I was captured. The Japs lost about twenty-five planes in the air and on the ground, so we didn’t look too bad.” Except Taylor had been captured. After he was captured, they walked him back to the airfield. All day, he watched them digging a grave. He thought he would be in one, because it was well known that they shot their captured pilots. The Japanese did not sign the Geneva Convention, and the only thing Taylor had going for him was that the war was not going well for the Japanese. Their atrocities were ‘slowing’ somewhat due to thoughts of military reprisals.
“The Japs were cruel, they pulled off my shoes, paraded me around Hengyang, spat on me, knocked me down with the flat side of a saber, hit me on the head with a horseshoe, cuffed me about and abused me. Then I was taken to a room where several Japanese pilots were, and they had great sport of my plight.” JM continued, “It was very humiliating and dehumanizing, which is what they wanted. Finally, I went to a small, cold cell and got to lay down. At daylight, I was untied after twenty hours, and washed my face in freezing water. When I saw my face in a metal mirror, I didn’t recognize my reflection. I had dried blood, bruises, mucus, and extensive swelling, and my hands looked like inflated rubber gloves after being tied for so long.” He was tied, hand and foot, under 24-hour guard. A week later, Taylor was flown to Hankow and put in a half basement jail cell, or solitary confinement. The cell was 8’ long by about 7’ wide. He didn’t deal well with that but did get some slight comfort in that there were Americans in there, too. Taylor explained, “I started being very unruly, and was placed in restraints for a few days. While I was making a ruckus, I heard another prisoner down the hall who told me to ‘be quiet!’. That man already knew the penalty for being disruptive.” Taylor was kept in restraints, consisting of cuffs and a belt. The belt ran through rings on the cuffs. “I could reach my mouth and I could squat and reach the floor,” he added, “That was the way I was able to feed myself and that’s about all. They kept me like that maybe a week.”
Solitary lasted nearly two months, and the four Americans who were there were shipped out to Nanking, then to Shanghai. After that, they were trucked to Kiang Wan POW camp. That camp was made up mostly of Wake Island survivors, Marines and civilians, the entire compliment of the North China US Embassy guard which included some Navy corpsmen, three doctors and a few USAAF men. There were 17 USAAF men, 12 officers, and five airmen, and some from a captured B-29 crew who had lost some of its members to the Japanese, who had executed them. After the war, their dog tags were found at the first prison where Taylor had been held. In May, they began a journey by boxcar to Peking, to Manchuria, down through Korea to Pusan. They crossed the strait to Japan in the hold of a ship.
“It was a very hazardous crossing,” Taylor said, “there was standing room only and no sanitary facilities.” The hold was packed so full with men that only a few could lie down at one time. They slept in shifts, until the filth seeped into the mats from the overflowing latrine. Finally, they were allowed up on the deck to breathe fresh air. At this time, the five enlisted men were separated from the pilots, the remaining 12 were kept on the army base at Sapporo. The twelve officers took the nickname, ‘the Diddled Dozen’. Taylor kept a diary of the names, ages, what they were flying, serial numbers, addresses, and their date of capture.
While Taylor was a POW, his parents received a letter from a friend of his saying he had received word of his death. “Of course I wasn’t dead,” Taylor said, “I was in Japan, but communications were bad, and the Japanese weren’t known for keeping their POWs alive.”
Taylor was a POW for ten months. The war ended August 15th, and they were finally on their way home September 12th.
“After the war ended, the Japanese gave us ‘luxuries’ like food, chocolate, cigarettes, and pen & paper.” Taylor finished, “They didn’t want to be our enemies, they were afraid of the repercussions.” The POWs were told to expect supplies from the Air Force, dropped by a B-29. After four days of waiting, they received a note dropped and tied to a wrench for weight and trailing a red life raft sail. The note was written on a navigational chart of the area and read as follows: “Hi Fellows: We will be back as soon as possible with supplies. We know you need them and are doing our best. 500th Bomb Group, Major Vance E. Black” The guys finally reached them from another location. Taylor tried to reach Major Black years later and found out that he had died in a North Korean POW camp.
“I still have the red sail and the chart with the handwritten note by Major Black.” Taylor pointed to the wall to show us the framed chart and note. He also has other favorite memorabilia, a drawing of ‘Tex’ Hill, a photo of the ‘Diddled Dozen’, a snapshot of him and his friend, Tommy, and his flight helmet.
After returning home, he married Lee Ella Robertson, a girl he had met while attending the University of Tennessee at Martin before the war. “She was in Union City, and I got my roommate to go with me. She was playing the piano when we got there.” Taylor smiled, “Man, she was pretty. I was standing there in that uniform with wings on - it was a pushover both ways.” The couple was married and had three sons. His wife, Lee, was stricken with alzheimer’s for thirteen years. Taylor kept her at home until her death, the last five years, she was bedridden. She was buried on her 81st birthday. Taylor then married Sharon Woelm in 2005. “She has been a great wife and care-giver now. She is a great comfort to me. I am mostly confined to a wheelchair. We had some good years before that, I am 96 years old.” Taylor finished.
Taylor decided to try to locate his fellow POWs, finding all of the 17. He has also participated in the 75th Fighter Squadron Annual Reunions and has been honored by Congress, and State Legislators.
Congressman Marsha Blackburn's field representative Johnny Blakely, State Senator Dolores Gresham, and State Representative Jamie Jenkins gathered to help honor Taylor. Blakely presented Taylor with a proclamation Congressman Blackburn read on the House of Representatives floor, as well as an American flag flown over the United States Capitol in Taylor's honor. "In my occupation, I have the occasion to meet a lot of great people," Blakely said. "This is one of the great honors in my life to come and meet this man and thank him for what he's done for our country." Senator Gresham presented Tennessee State flag to Taylor that was flown over the State Capitol in Taylor's honor in 2016. "Most of us were little kids, so we have no way of knowing the depths of suffering Mr. Buddy [Taylor] went through, and any of the Greatest Generation went through," Gresham said. Representative Jenkins presented a framed proclamation to Taylor that was signed by Governor Bill Haslam and Speaker Beth Harwell honoring Taylor for his service and sacrifice.
In closing, it was truly a privilege to meet ‘Mr. Buddy’ Taylor. There aren’t many of the Greatest Generation remaining. The hardships that they bore, and tell about with a smile that covers all, are greater by far than most of us will ever bear. Thank you, Mr. Buddy, to you and to all who served, and to those who gave their all. Thank you to all of the ‘Tethered, but Untamed’ POWs.